Retailers Weigh Masks, Gloves for Employees

OSHA suggests them for health-care workers only, but many store associates are donning them.

March 26, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—As COVID-19 spreads, work environments from stores to hospitals are facing a quandary over who should be permitted to wear masks and gloves on the job, and when, reports the Wall Street Journal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t recommend the use of face masks for healthy people and says they should be reserved for health-care workers, especially as many hospitals run out of protective equipment.

“For the average civilian walking in the street or working in their place of business, there’s really not much benefit, if any,” said Bruce Ribner, medical director of Emory University Hospital’s serious-communicable-diseases unit.

Apart from health-care workers, he said, most people can move away from anyone coughing or sneezing. But given research indicating that the virus can be spread by people before they exhibit symptoms, some workers whose jobs require close contact with the public are bringing their own gear to work anyway.

Giant Food yesterday sent an email to customers alerting them that they may encounter grocery store employees wearing masks and gloves. “While still not recommended by the CDC for people who are not sick, we appreciate that some of our associates have continued to express interest in wearing surgical masks and/or gloves while at work,” Ira Kress, interim president, wrote. “As such, associates with an interest in doing so may wear a surgical mask and/or gloves during their shift. We want to assure you, if you see an associate wearing a mask, it does not mean that the associate is ill.”

Kroger has reportedly asked the federal government to provide protective masks and gloves to retail employees. The grocery chain is allowing its staff to wear protective masks and gloves during their shifts.

As reported in NACS Daily Tuesday, numerous grocery chains and some c-stores, including GetGo, are installing plexiglass shields to limit clerks’ direct contact with customers. Walmart announced Tuesday that over the next two to three weeks it will install sneeze guards at its pharmacy and checkout lanes at both Walmart and Sam’s Club stores nationwide. The retail giant also said that team members would soon start sanitizing shopping carts using Hart brand two gallon chemical spray kits.

The World Health Organization says the coronavirus can be transmitted by touching infected surfaces or spread through droplets from an infected person’s cough. To minimize infections, governments have shuttered nonessential businesses and encouraged “social distancing,” in which people stay at least six feet from each other.

Many employees with office jobs are now working from home, but millions of other workers—essential retail employees, public-safety officers, nursing-home staff and more—don’t have that option, and checkout cashiers say that maintaining six feet of distance from people simply isn’t possible.

New guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration hope to address such concerns, said Peggy Otum, a lawyer who focuses on workplace safety. In places with community transmission of coronavirus, guidelines say, people who work in close proximity with the public, such as schools or high-volume retail settings, could be considered at medium risk of exposure. In those cases, OSHA says, gloves or a face mask might be appropriate.

The opinions are just for guidance and not legally binding. Employers have discretion over whether to allow employees to use protective gear.

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.